A Tale of Two Editors Part 1

So I’m back into the actual writing schtick. My book previously published under the title “Der Sternvolker” (which, by the way, is terribly improper German grammar; Es tut mir leid) went through a major edit last year, and is going through another one as we speak.

My experience with the two different editors I’ve used has been like night and day. One barely communicated at all, the other communicates a lot. One had a very definitive vision of where they wanted to go, the other looks to me for more guidance.

I’m sure other new writers are going, or will go through similar experiences. Here I will describe my experiences, and welcome input from other just starting authors who working with their first or second editor.

Part One covers my first editor. NOTE: This isn’t a positive or negative, and I attempt to simply relate things as they occurred. I do, however, write several lessons learned at the end.

Editor One

I won’t use names in this article. So the first editor I used shall be dubbed: Editor One.

Editor One was an experienced editor with quite a few titles under her belt, as well as a few titles she wrote herself. I was excited to work with her as she seemed to generally understand the more sci-fi sort of things I was trying to get through, such as Cowboy Bebop and Firefly references. I was in geek heaven. She also had a firm grasp of the Turkey City Lexicon which has become the standard in a lot of writing circles, specifically in sci-fi/fantasy writing.

When I solicited her editing services she sent me a sample edit of the first few pages of my manuscript, and upon receipt of her edits confirmed I wanted her to edit my work.

It was the price tag that hit me: $2,400.

I had just received my tax return back, and instead of paying off some more debt, I decided to take the leap and pay her for her services.

And so the editing began.

I heard nothing for about four weeks.

And then, one day, my edited manuscript appeared in my inbox! I was ecstatic.

I went through the manuscript to see what she had done. It was diced, chopped, sliced, and beaten. And it needed to be. There was so much in my old manuscript that needed work, and that was just downright bad.

But, most of her notes were comments or recommendations. No hard “change this” or “move this here and it will really pop” or “delete this garbage and rewrite it.”

Included in her fee was a 1 hour consultation on her edits. I sought further information on many of her comments, and where things should go and how I should rewrite certain parts. She didn’t offer much. One of the recommendations I remember after asking if I should write a certain part a certain way was, “Really that’s up to you.”

At the end of our conversation I made the comment that I had a lot of deleting and rewriting to do, and she responded with, “And that’s one of the great parts of writing. You get your edits, and then you get to rewrite, sometimes the entire book!”

And that was that. My hour was up and I had exhausted my services with her.

I delved into the task of rewriting my manuscript – again. And then I re-rewrote it, and eventually stumbled upon my current editor…

Lessons Learned

First and foremost I felt some confusion with the process, especially at the end. My thought was that, while the editor can’t tell me exactly what to write, shouldn’t they at least be able to help with how to write it?

And that is where clearer communication would come in. I should have asked more questions about exactly what more of her editing looked like, maybe have check-ins throughout the process to get a feel for what she was saying and recommending, and get clarity on the details of the 1-hour consultation at the end. Maybe ask how such conversations went over with her other clients, what they covered, and what she absolutely would not/could not do.

I did look into other editors before I chose the one that edited my MS. Pricing for the length of my book (110k words) was about the same, give or take $50. With my contracts/procurement background I definitely got a wide selection of pricing and compare their editing styles and what they offered in their services (ie. post-edit consultation). Ultimately she was the best bang for my buck.

Perhaps I should have looked harder for editors, maybe there were veteran editors out there who could have offered better pricing for the same/similar services. And I would recommend to any readers to absolutely do so. Solicit examples and pricing from at least seven (7) different editors, and I recommend going all the way up to ten (10). Understand their editing style, personality, what they will do, and what they won’t do in the editing process.

Make sure everything is clear, and preferably in writing so there are no questions, disagreements, or misunderstandings down the road.

To Be Continued

I am currently working with my latest editor. Part 2 will be posted upon completion of her editing services, upon which time I will write about the experience, and lessons learned.

I hope this is helpful for new writers like me. If you’re a new writer, or even a veteran writer, tell me about some of your experiences – good, bad, and indifferent, and the lessons you learned. Are there any editors you would recommend to others?

Until next time. . .

Poem – Hearth and Home

I have always loved the poetry of Yates, Henley, and others. Lately I’ve been taking notes (mostly in my head) of the poems I read and what I want to express.

It’s funny, actually watching the movie “Moana” with my children (as well as reading the Viking sagas) has nurtured this flame of desire to write poetry.

“Hearth and Home” is about my dedication to protecting my family. So simple, yet in this day in age seems so foreign, even counter-cultural based on what I’ve been seeing in the media.

~~~~~~~~~~

HEARTH AND HOME

Whilst my family slumbers
I lay resting but ready
The clock glaring with red numbers
My breathing and heart steady.
*
Whilst my children play on our street
I stand calm but alert
Though most are kind that we meet
I am prepared to protect my offspring from hurt.
*
Let the evils of the world swarm
Wherever we may roam
I will be the righteous storm
Defending hearth and home.

How Strategic Sourcing Can Improve Your Organization’s Processes

Your organization is working to improve its sourcing processes and strategy. Like areas of spend have been grouped together to determine what the organization spends annually. The department or division responsible for sourcing has identified areas of spend where savings can be realized.

But, as the organization delves deeper, they find that reducing outside drivers of cost isn’t the only hurdle they face.

There are materials and services within the organization that people have been dependent on for years, perhaps decades. Leaning these materials and services, or removing them altogether, will be a major culture shock. Senior management is even wary of cutting off these materials and services.

Senior management wants to save money, but the sourcing group knows that changing how materials and services are sourced, what will be sourced, and when will have a major impact on the organization’s processes as well as its budget.

Sourcing the material and/or service is just one part of the larger sourcing strategy. A lot of work goes into transforming the rest of the organization and how it does business in order for the wins in sourcing to have their full effect – one more part of total cost ownership. Process improvement in other parts of the organization are just as important as improvements in the sourcing function itself.

Total Cost Ownership

As discussed in a previous blog post, Total Cost of Ownership is everything that goes into before, during, and after the sourcing of a material and/or service.

Generally speaking, this includes administrative processing costs, technology costs, overhead, freight, the cost of lead times, if items are damaged, and rework that needs to be done.

Rarely do organizations look at total cost of ownership in terms of what their own organization is doing.

Does each project manager or department use the freight carrier they like the best?

Is there a service the company uses, but could be eliminated if project managers were held to better standards of planning?

Do employees make parts runs because favored suppliers “don’t deliver”?

It’s internal processes like these that need to be looked at in tandem with the improvement of sourcing the material(s) and/or service(s) and organization buys. They are as much a part of Total Cost Ownership as overhead or lead times on materials.

How so?

Let’s use an example from my experience.

The company I work for uses a freight service that only delivers between facilities in my company in the city we’re in. This freight service costs about $300,000 per year for them to move material from one facility to the other. We love this external freight service so much, their drivers park their trucks at our facilities.

Why do we use them?

Because sometimes project managers cut work orders associated with one facility, only to draw the material out of another. So materials needs to be shuttled around to ensure the proper materials are in the proper place at the proper time.

We also junk out some of our larger equipment, and this service transports the junked out equipment (they’re rather large) to our central processing facility here in town.

On the face of it, this is $300,000 expended by my company per year.

Immediately some will note that, if PM’s were held to a standard, and their work orders assigned to the correct facility, this would eliminate the need for this service. And can’t we use internal personnel (we have personnel qualified) to load the equipment and drive it to the central processing facility?

But it goes deeper than that. PM’s not assigning work orders to the right facility forces them to draw from that facility, which causes work in the warehouse, and then those materials aren’t there for jobs that are properly assigned to that facility, creating wait times as items are shuffled between facilities. Sometimes its time sensitive jobs that are forced to wait as the warehouses figure out where material went and what needs to be brought in from other warehouses. Sometimes people get lazy, and instead they just put in an order to have it bought from the supplier, costing the District even more.

So it’s not costing the company I work for $300,000. It’s costing them hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions, in additional man hours, rework, opportunity cost of inventory, and delays on projects.

Why do we still use this “shuttle” service then? Because we’ve had them for almost twenty years. Because no one has pushed back on PMs and other internal business partners to assign work orders to the correct facility. Because our warehouse personnel are doing the best they can within this system and the shuttle service is a Band-Aid that people have become comfortable with.

In this case, it’s not just a process – it’s a part of the culture.

Where to Begin

So where does a sourcing professional begin?

Start with the sourcing strategy.

The sourcing group has identified a need, and then they go and gather their facts. But they don’t just gather the facts on the surface. They have to dig deeper.

  • What are like materials/services that can be grouped with the one being looked at?
  • What vendor(s) provide this material/service and those grouped with it?
  • What internal stakeholders use these?
  • Why are they using them?
  • Why are they using them the way they are?
  • Are they still needed?
  • What would need to be done to consolidate or remove materials/services?
  • If this is done, how will it affect the processes and procedures of the different divisions and departments of the company?

These are just some of the questions that must be asked to challenge the status quo, especially if that status quo is costing the company substantial amounts of money.

And it has to be the group responsible for sourcing in the organization that must do this.

While part of sourcing strategy is definitely cost savings and value adds, it’s also process improvement around what is being sourced, and how it will affect the organization.

I caveat this with the organization should not mold itself around its sourcing department. The organization should mold itself around its overall strategy, and the sourcing strategy should support this. But if there are procedures (low level/tactical) changed by sourcing that will help the company achieve its goals, then these should be pursued.

Buy-In

As the sourcing organization moves to change the processes – and perhaps even some of the culture – of the organization, they cannot operate in a vacuum.

Any change initiative needs a guiding coalition, preferably upper management, and buy-in from managers at all levels. It will be up to the Director/Division Manager of the sourcing organization in the company to win that buy-in, and to communicate with upper management for their support.

This isn’t unique to sourcing. Any change initiative requires this. I would argue that sourcing needs it more since most people view sourcing or supply chain management generally as order takers, and resistance to change coming from this area may be greater.

Conclusion

The processes surrounding and effected by sourcing strategies within the organization for different areas of spend are just as much a part of total cost ownership as external factors. Sourcing professionals must take this into account when sourcing materials and services from a strategic level. Some organizations call these individuals Category Managers, and category management is a discipline all of its own with that broad focus. It’s up to the organization to determine how they will conduct their strategic sourcing, and they must do so with an eye to internal process improvement.

Supply Chain – Finding Savings in Sourcing Before Cutting Headcount

The Office Space Effect

Many remember (and chuckle, and seethe) at the scenes in the movie “Office Space” when the consultants are grilling the employees of the company to determine what they do to see if they are needed. Many in today’s workforce can relate to this. When companies need to save money or are trying to find efficiencies, where is the first place they look to cut?

Headcount.

The men and women that do the actual work in the company.

I am not advocating that executives cut their pay (though, that may help image-wise). I am a firm believer in free market capitalism and the freedom of people to amass as much wealth as they see fit. If the executives’ pay is the thing hurting the company though…

But cut the people that are making the company operate every day? Especially if those people are effective at their job? That makes no sense to me. (Note: I said if the people were effective at doing their job. If they’re not: fire them.)

Rarely do companies look at their sourcing activities, as well as other internal processes within the company, to cut the budget.

Developing more effective sourcing techniques and improving processes, and reducing total cost ownership will do more for a company, both up front and long term, than slashing headcount.

NOTE: I use the following terms here interchangeably.

  • RFP/RFQ/Solicitation for Bids
  • Supplier/Vendor/Contractor

Developing More Effective Sourcing Techniques and Improving Processes

This is anecdotal and I don’t have any hard data to back it up, but I am finding that many medium and even larger companies don’t have a central procurement/sourcing department, or a department within their organization that leads and monitors that function. Purchase orders are done as lists on excel spreadsheets, or over the phone. Many times supervisors or crew leaders simply go to the vendor with a credit card. This is an ineffective way of sourcing the company’s needs.

How do these companies know they’re getting the best price? Because the vendor tells them? Unfortunately, “Our supplier tells us we are getting the best price.” is the answer I hear time and time again, both in other companies and in the company I work for.

Developing effective sourcing techniques can help reduce costs almost immediately. Just a simple RFP can produce lower purchase prices. (We’ll talk more about purchase pricing below under reducing total cost ownership.)

The company I work for did this with their MRO. They discovered on some items which suppliers were telling us we were getting the best price we were being charged a 400% mark-up. When we asked the supplier why, the supplier’s response was, “You never asked.” It was no wonder these suppliers “loved us” so much – we took them at their word when they said we were getting the best price, and were able to overcharge us exponentially.

Control of bidding, purchase orders, and contracts – everything that goes into sourcing – with a central sourcing department, or at least one department within the organization that is given responsibility and accountability for this function, helps, too. They can work to set company policies, processes, and procedures around sourcing and, with upper management support, enforce it.

This is where your Lean and Six Sigma ninjas come in, too. Perhaps there are already procurement processes within the company, but there is clearly room for improvement. Mapping the processes and their sub-steps, and leaning them out by removing steps and/or red tape will save in work hours alone – and time is money. It doesn’t take spending millions on a consultant like McKinsey and Company, or Accenture to do this. Companies can do this themselves.

Developing better negotiating tactics and techniques can help, too. The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) includes many techniques for negotiations in their CPSM Study Guide. And there are lower cost consultants and webinars out there that can help your company hone their negotiating skills. (Yes, I do have a bias against the bigger supply chain consultants. There might be some bitterness there. (There’s definitely bitterness.))

Finally, control of the procurement process, and by extension payment of suppliers, helps save. While there are some instances where parts or services are needed in less than 24 hours – I emphasize some – 95% of the time this is due to poor planning on the part of the Project Manager, the sourcing department, and the warehouses. (Note my use of and not or. It’s a team effort, and if one fails, they all fail.)

The company should limit who can input requests for orders, who can approve and issue these requests and orders, and then keep a close eye on invoices to ensure they match quoted pricing.

Working closely with the company’s warehouses can help set minimums and maximums (min/max) on materials so that what is needed most is in stock when it’s needed, while working estimates and forecasts on past spend and usage and upcoming project earlier can ensure that if additional materials or services are needed they are sourced well in advance. Having pre-negotiated agreements across the company with a handful of suppliers can ensure that support is provided when needed, and new one-off contracts aren’t being constantly issued.

Reducing Total Cost Ownership

So your company has a handle on its sourcing of materials and services. Controls are in place, and the processes have been made lean, mean, sourcing machines. Money is being saved.

But not enough.

The next thing a company should look at is the total cost ownership of the materials and services they are sourcing.

Here’s an example:

Lean Corp wants to go out for bid for buying and installing widgets. (Very original, I know.) They send out a RFP to five vendors. The bids come back, and Lean Corp short lists two of the vendors: Cheapo Co, and Quality Co.

Cheapo  Co can provide the widgets for $10, and charge $10/hour for installation.

Quality Co can also provide the widgets for $10 (widgets are probably a commodity, like steel), and charge $20/hour for installation.

At face value, Cheapo Co is the low bidder.

But there’s a catch.

Cheapo Co takes 3 hours to install each widget! That’s $30 of installation per widget!

Quality Co, on the other hand, only takes an hour to install each widget; $20 of installation per widget. And the equipment is up and running faster, meaning less downtime, meaning Lean Corp can produce more, sooner.

Lean Corp brings both vendors in for negotiations.

Cheapo Co won’t budge on their pricing, and offer very little extra for their services. C’mon, they’re clearly the low bid! They know it! They’ve been working with Lean Corp for over a decade and the working relationship is great. And Cheapo Co’s owner is golfing buddies with two of the VPs of Lean Corp. Why would Lean Corp want to award to anyone else?

Quality Co, on the other hand, offers extended warranties on the widgets they install, and they offer up to 10 business days of training per year at no charge, a value of $15,000.

That training has downstream effects in Lean Corp: the training which Quality Co provides increases the knowledge of Lean Corp mechanics and reduces rework they have to do, and reduces downtime of the equipment by dozens of hours per year – remember time is money. The additional cost reduction is compounded by the value added services Quality Co provides.

This is an extremely simplified example, but it gets the point across well.

Total Cost Ownership is a pricing model that takes into account everything before, during, and after the sourcing of a material or service. This includes (but is not limited to) materials that go into producing the thing being bought, labor hours that go into producing the material/service, overhead, freight, mark-up, how long it takes to provide the material or service, number of deliveries per week/month, estimated downtime, and inventory holding costs, to name a few.

Reducing the total cost ownership of the materials and services sourced, while working to increase the value added services the supplier provides, should be the goal of the organization trying to cut its costs, especially when trying to not cut overhead.

This can be done through negotiations with suppliers, or through internal efficiencies within the company itself.

Conclusion

Companies looking to reduce costs should develop more effective sourcing techniques and processes, and reduce their total cost ownership of materials and services before slashing headcount. This will not only create short-term wins, but a long-term, sustainable model of keeping costs low. It is up to senior and middle management of companies to enforce this so that it takes hold in the company’s culture.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am not advocating for never cutting headcount. If positions are completely outdated and unneeded, then they need to go. No need having the ten Accounts Payable clerks that were kept because that’s how many they had in the time before computers and now everything is automated so six of those clerks are being paid to check social media. And if individuals are truly underperforming, even after corrective actions, then they need to go.

Improving sourcing is where companies should start to cut their costs.

Short Story – American Socialism

Marcus Brown sat at xyrs desk in the open office area. Xe sat, and xe worked. Today, work was staring at a blank word document on xyrs computer screen. Xe swiveled back and forth in xyrs black rolling chair with the ergonomic back support, and then xe rolled forward and back. Every once in a while xe would click the mouse to keep xyrs screen from going dark.

“Hello, Marcus,” said a sweet voice from behind Marcus.

Marcus turned to see the soft, white face and long, straightened brown hair of xyrs supervisor, Maureen.

“Hello, Maureen,” Marcus said.

I don’t want to talk to you right now, Marcus thought.

“How’s work coming along?” Maureen asked.

I don’t want to do any work, Marcus thought.

“You know,” Marcus began, “I just. . .things have been hard lately, and I feel stressed and unsure about life. I just haven’t had a lot of time for work.”

As if Marcus had choreographed everything beforehand, Maureen’s eyes widened and her mouth opened, her hand going to her mouth to add to the effect.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Maureen said, and Marcus knew she actually meant it. “If you want you can go talk to the floor counselor. Xe can help you talk it out.”

Marcus gave xyrs best sheepish smile. “Thanks, Maureen. I think I just need to go home for now. I can come in tomorrow, refreshed.”

“Not a problem Marcus, take as much time as you need.”

Marcus thanked Maureen as xe stood, then walked down the lines of desks topped with large screened computer monitors. Many of the desks were empty. Other employees had required time off for their feelings, too. As Marcus strode through the office, xe passed two employees who were “taking a break” with table tennis. One employee in their early forties zipped by on a scooter – and Marcus immediately felt bad for having age-ist thoughts. Walking past the counselor’s office, Marcus heard the whimpers and sobs of Jessica, an employee who usually sat next to Marcus, unless xyrs energy didn’t want xem to.

“Xe said I wasn’t getting enough done,” Jessica said, sobbing into xyrs hands, tears running down xyrs face.

“Perhaps xe didn’t realize your perspective,” the counselor, Bob, said, attempting to console Jessica.

Marcus exited the office building and strode out into the warm summer day. Xe picked xyrs way across the broken, pitted road – still unrepaired since the peaceful protests a month ago – and squeezed between two burnt out cars. Across the street, at a coffee shop Marcus frequented, the owner swept up glass and broken equipment off the sidewalk from the previous night’s demonstrations. Marcus was surprised to see the city had already cited the coffee shop owner for littering.

Strolling through downtown Marcus passed a long line of people leading up to a building that had once housed a line of stores, the people all looking the same in their ragged clothes. Now, government officials handed out welfare checks – extra for the “repressed”, less for the “privileged”. Posters in the windows of the building espoused the benefit of universal incomes and how it was benefitting the country. Marcus had already cashed xyrs check this month – a lot less since xe was extra privileged with xyrs skin color and a job.

One individual in the welfare line stood out from the rest. Xyrs clothes were newer and cleaner. Just by looking at xem Marcus knew they would receive a larger check.

“I can’t to get my check and get another pair of new shoes,” the individual said.

Some of the people in line grumbled about just needing enough food to last the month, maybe new shoes for their growing children. Marcus shrugged. The check was that individual’s right, these other people shouldn’t shame them.

At last, Marcus reached xyrs apartment building. There had been a peaceful protest here a few weeks ago – Marcus had been part of it – and the door to the building was missing. It was fitting, Marcus thought, since no one should be kept out, right?

Marcus took the rickety elevator up to xyrs floor. Before Marcus reached xyrs apartment, two individuals walked into the hallway.

“Hey,” one of them said. “Where’s your check? You owe it to me.”

Marcus had never seen these individuals before, but xe immediately noticed they both had guns.

“Guns are illegal,” Marcus said, freezing.

“Sure they are,” the other individual said. “Now give us your check.”

Marcus darted down the hallway to his apartment before either individual could level their gun at him, and immediately xe heard the heavy footfalls of the two individuals behind xym.

Reaching xyrs apartment, Marcus unlocked it, zipped in, and then quickly closed the door and locked the three deadbolts.

“Damn man,” Marcus heard one of the individuals who pursued xym say.

“We’ll get the next one,” the other individual said from the other side of the door.

Marcus didn’t move until xe heard their footsteps fade down the hall.

Turning, Marcus looked at his small apartment. A ratty futon decorated the floor, topped with a few blankets and a pillow. The toilet sat in the far corner of the room, yet still too close to the bend. Opposite the toilet was the refrigerator, the pantry, and the stove. Mounted to the wall was a brand new government provided TV.

By programmed action, Marcus picked up the TV remote off the floor and turned on the TV.

“Another demonstration against capitalism and hate,” the news anchor said as the TV screen flicked on.

The image on the screen was of people burning cars and smashing windows while holding up “Love Trumps Hate”, “Hands off my pussy”, and “Black Lives Matter” signs.

“Legislators offered their support for these demonstrations,” the anchor continued.

The image on the screen switched to an elderly, balding individual with a warm smile on their face.

“We support these peaceful protests,” the legislator, whose name was Chelsea Lanning, said. “Their feelings on these subjects are valid and fighting hate is always a noble cause.”

Marcus nodded along with Lanning’s words.

“These people are supporting freedom and democracy,” Lanning continued.

“Yes,” Marcus said, pumping his fist in the air.

Lanning spread his hands, as if offering something to xyrs viewers. “And because of the efforts of the people, we are free.”

“We are free,” Marcus repeated with zealous rapture.

Short Story – The Redemption of Brother Draga

“What brought you to Prussia, brother?”

It was the first time Draga had been asked the question directly. Even after his arrival in Prussia, even after his acceptance into the Teutonic Order, none had asked his reasons for leaving Saxony.

Not that they cared. The Pope had issued the Bull for crusade in Prussia to spread the Word of God and bring the heathen to heel, and the Teutonic Order were desperate for help after a series of costly losses. Beyond Draga’s horse, armor, and sword the Teutonic Order had cared little about his past.

That was all fine and well with Draga.

Now Draga, and the other Teutonic Knights, were making their way up river, rowing against the current in flat-bottomed boats to reach their intended target: a village of Yatwingians that was a stopping point for raids into the Order’s lands and harassment of their shipping. Besides, the villagers refused baptism.

Draga turned to the originator of the question, a Brother Fadiko, of some minor noble family – near the Rhineland? Or around Bavaria? Draga had met so many in the last week that he was having trouble remembering all their backgrounds and Fatherlands.

“Why does anyone join the Teutonic Order?” Draga replied as he rowed.

Fadiko emitted joyless chuckle. “Redemption. The full remission of sins, or so they say.”

“So they say,” Draga replied.

“And what are you seeking redemption from?” Fadiko said, continuing to press Draga. “Did you massacre a village? Caught lying with a woman whom you weren’t married to?” Fadiko paused a moment and wrinkled his nose. “Caught lying with a man?”

“Does it matter?”

“I’m just looking to get out from under my brother’s shadow,” Fadiko said with no prompt from Draga. “He wanted me to join the priesthood so I would not challenge his claim to our father’s lands.”

“And here you are,” Draga said, pointing to the white linen that covered Fadiko’s body and armor, the black cross of the order sewn to the left of his white surcoat.

“In a sense,” Fadiko said. “Though ask a certain pagan woman in Koenigsberg and she would whole heartedly disagree that I’m anything like a priest.”

Draga emitted a grunt and shook his head.

Normally on horseback, for this raid Draga, Fadiko, and the handful of other brother-knights would embark on foot. Like Draga and Fadiko, the other Teutonic Knights were each clad in their armor and long white surcoats, the black cross of the order emblazoned on the left. Each knight’s helmet was set beside them so as not to be cumbersome during rowing. Going to war with the Teutonic Knights were auxiliaries of Old Prussians, from tribes friendly with the Teutonic Order, and more importantly enemies of the Yatwingians.

The sky above was an ominous gray, the clouds pregnant with rain. It was late Spring, and, as in much of Prussia, the rains came more frequently this time of year.

“I still don’t see why we couldn’t bring our horses,” another brother, Ernulf, said. Though his voice was quiet, the keen whine within still raked on Draga’s nerves.

One of the Old Prussian auxiliaries, an elder by the name of Herk, responded from the front of the vessel, behind Draga.

“My lord,” said Herk, his voice laden with a Prussian accent, “the way is too heavily forested. The horses could not maneuver and the Yatwingians would easily kill you.” Herk took a breath mid-stroke before continuing. “And though the land looks solid, in many places the ground beneath is saturated with water, and you would be forced to drag your horse out of the mud.”

Ernulf didn’t respond to Herk’s explanation, instead mumbling something to himself about the “damned heathens”.

And on they rowed. The Teutonic Knights and their Old Prussian auxiliaries had been rowing for two days. Though always on the look out for attacks from the riverbanks, the constant rowing became monotonous, and Draga’s mind would wonder. Draga’s mind would take him away from these dreary Prussian lands, back to Saxony, back to his home. Back to his wife and children.

Back to that day.

Back to the heat of the raging inferno.

Back to the pleading screams of the woman.

Back to the distraught cries of the child…

Draga shook his head, banishing the memories – for now.

“This is the place, Brother-Sergeant,” the Old Prussian warrior, Herk, said from the front of the boat.

Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt von Wolfsburg, the commander of this expedition, grunted a confirmation, then gave the order to put ashore.

Three of the flat-bottomed boats travelled together, and each carried roughly a score of men. In short order, all three boats had ground against the river bank, and Draga and the other warriors within leapt overboard into the cold river to help pull the boats in. Once the boats were secure on the riverbank, the three-score of Teutonic Knights and Old Prussian Auxiliaries secured their war gear, then gathered around Gisilbehrt and the Old Prussian leader, Herk.

Gisilbehrt was a bear of a man, a full two heads taller than the tallest man standing in the ranks. His brown beard was so dark that it looked black, and his head was shaved to the scalp. Bright, zealous blue eyes raked across the ranks of brothers and auxiliaries. Rumor had it that Gisilbehrt could peer into a man’s soul with those eyes.

Draga wasn’t so sure of that, but he had to admit that Gisilbehrt’s dark glare and excellent oratory awoke a fiery zeal in many a man’s heart.

“Draw your blades, brothers,” Gisilbehrt said. Though he whispered, his deep bass voice carried to the ears of every man.

“Won’t the glint off our swords give us away to the pagans?” Ernulf asked, and that damned whine in Ernulf’s voice scraped Draga’s nerves again.

Herk replied to Ernulf’s question. “If the Yatwingians have scouts in the forest, they’ll spot us regardless. Better to have your sword ready than trying to draw it as you die.”

“Wise words that shall be heeded,” Gisilbehrt said before Ernulf or any other brother could say anything else. Then Gisilbehrt turned to Herk. “Send your scouts ahead.”

Herk said something in the Prussian tongue and five men, lightly armed and with no armor, broke from the group and instantly seemed to melt into the forest.

“Move out,” Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt said with a wave of his hand, and the knights and auxiliaries fell into several columns to follow the progress of the scouts through the woods.

Draga was unsure how long they trudged through the thick vegetation and the sucking mire. Each step was a battle with Mother Earth as the seemingly solid ground would quickly give way under foot as if grasping him around the ankle, and Draga had to wrench his foot out to take even a single step, and then repeat the process. Watching the other Prussian auxiliaries struggle along with their Teutonic Knight masters, Draga wondered how the Prussian scouts were able to move through the woods so nimbly. But, according to Herk and his men, this was the most navigable path. So the knights and the Prussian auxiliaries trudged on.

After what seemed like hours, one of the scouts reappeared. The man – he seemed more of a boy to Draga – practically pranced around as he reported to Herk.

“He says the village is a short ways ahead,” Herk said, translating. “And that no Yatwingian scouts were encountered.”

“Very good,” Gisilbehrt replied.

With the struggle of travelling through the wood many of the brother-knights had carried their helmets beneath their arms. Now, though, with the battle nearly at hand, they donned their full-face helmets and whispered prayers to the Lord for protection. Gisilbehrt’s winged helm stood out among the rest – the crimson painted bat-like wings a powerful psychological instrument for friend and foe alike.

The brother-knights moved forward. Draga’s heart began to race, and it seemed as if his steps were easier now that he was prepared for imminent battle.

A short ways ahead the Teutonic Knights and their auxiliaries were halted by the scouts, and the five Prussian scouts guided them forward in silence. The three score warriors halted again, and this time the lead scout, an elderly Prussian with gray in his hair and beard, pointed to a clearing. There sat a collection of longhouses, their roofs thatched with bundled sticks, their sides made of stacked logs. Some of the hovels were dug into the earth, the roof the only thing sticking up from the ground. Surrounding the buildings were pens with goats. A large stream meandered by on the far side of the village from where Draga and the other Teutonic Knights now hid, and Draga could see where the Yatwingians had set up fish catches.

Other than the shuffling of the knights and the auxiliaries, the little village was peaceful. Almost idyllic. In another lifetime, Draga thought, he could have lived in such a place and been happy. And, he thought, they were bringing the sword and fire to this quiet place.

Fire.

And death.

And screams.

Draga shook his head as Gisilbehrt spoke.

“Spread out and surround the village,” Gisilbehrt said. “Let no one escape. Only kill if attacked.” Gisilbehrt met eyes with Herk. “And no rape.”

Herk nodded, but Draga could tell that something had just passed between the two men. Probably an old quarrel, Draga thought. Heathens, it was said, were known to be more apt rape their female victims.

Draga knew that Christian armies could be just as lecherous.

In short order the knights and auxiliaries spread out into a rough semi-circle on the forest’s edge. Gisilbehrt looked up and down his line, his left hand up, his sword in his right.

Gisilbehrt’s left hand fell, and the warriors of the Teutonic Order broke from the cover of the trees and charged into the village. War cries from three score throats crashed upon the serenity of the village.

Immediately, men rushed from out of the wood buildings. Some were ready with axe, spear, and shield. Others jostled their weapons and gear, caught unprepared. Others still were mere boys, only just coming of age, the hairs on their chins and cheeks only just showing, wide eyed with fear yet held fast in place by honor, the other men of the village, and fear of what would happen to their families.

Draga roared as he charged forward, sword drawn. A Yatwingian man of middling age met Draga, and Draga quickly dispatched him by ramming his sword through the man’s chest before the Yatwingian could react.

There was a victorious howl from the other knights and Old Prussians as they cheered Draga’s kill and began to lay into the other Yatwingian defenders.

Combat was not hard for Draga. He had been trained for it since he was a child in his family’s castle. Draga had been baptized in blood shortly after his sixteenth birthday. He had seen battle for years. Though the death cries of men and the stink of blood and corpses assailed him, Draga was able to deal with it and move on.

Now Draga moved onto his next opponent, a boy who, in a flash, reminded Draga of himself at that age. The boy roared a challenge before leaping upon Draga with two axes. Draga caught the bottom of both axe blades on his sword, and pushed the young Yatwingian back. As Draga and the young Yatwingian man circled one another, numerous other small duels were being fought around them.

Draga feinted left, and his Yatwingian opponent followed him just as Draga knew he would. But when Draga stepped in for the kill, the young Yatwingian man reacted quick as a flash and pushed Draga’s sword aside, though only barely. Draga and his opponent circled again, eyes wide, blood up. Draga felt the ghost of a smile on his own lips.

Now it was the young Yatwingian’s turn to feint. But Draga had years of experience on this youth, and was prepared. As the Yatwingian moved to Draga’s left a fraction of a step, Draga swung his sword up. Draga was rewarded with the rip of fabric, the spray of crimson blood, and the pained yowl of the young Yatwingian man.

Draga’s Yatwingian opponent collapsed on the ground, the youth’s chest heaving rapidly. As Draga watched he could see he had only wounded the younger man, and that, if he stayed down, this Yatwingian would live.

“Submit,” Draga said, his voice deep and harsh, and he leveled his sword point at the youth’s throat.

The young Yatwingian man took Draga’s meaning and, though clearly in pain, raised his hands in submission.

Around Draga the Teutonic Knights and Old Prussian auxiliaries were finishing up their opponents. Some of the Yatwingians had stood and fought bravely – and died. Some, like Draga’s opponent, had submitted, and their lives were spared. A small handful of Yatwingian defenders had taken the cowards way out and fled, and Draga could hear Herk ordering his men to pursue.

“A victory for Christendom!” Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt said, yelling to the heavens. “God be praised.”

“God be praised!” roared the other knights, and Draga found himself joining in their jubilation.

“Search the buildings,” Gisilbehrt said. “Take any still hiding within. We will take them back to Koenigsberg. Gather the livestock. Then burn the buildings. Leave nothing for the pagan armies. Herk, have your men capture those that fled, and find anyone hiding in the woods.”

Herk set his men to the task Gisilbehrt had given them, and several of Herk’s Old Prussian auxiliaries secured Draga’s young opponent.

“Gave him quite a lesson, my Lord,” one of the auxiliaries said in broken Low German as he grabbed the young Yatwingian man’s legs.

“He was an excellent opponent,” Draga said, then saluted the young Yatwingian with his sword.

The Old Prussian auxiliary translated for the youth, and, though still in pain, the younger man smiled and nodded to Draga.

“Shall we see what these heathens have hiding?” Brother Fadiko said, walking up beside Draga.

“Probably not much,” Draga said, leading Fadiko to the nearest longhouse. “Though poorly prepared, it seems that someone notified this village of our arrival.”

Fadiko shrugged. “Still a decent fight, though my opponent fled.”

Draga and Fadiko entered the first house, swords up. Within were discarded blankets, some arrows, and the scattered leavings of food. In the center of the home was a fire pit, and the burned logs there still showed some heat.

Empty. Not even a place for anyone to hide.

Draga wrapped a discarded cloth he had found on the dirt floor around the top of a piece of wood that had been propped against the longhouse wall, and placing it into the orange embers, coaxed heat from them with his breath. It took a moment, but soon the rag burned and Draga began touching his makeshift torch to spots he knew would catch fire quickly.

Exiting the now burning longhouse Draga could see that the other knights had begun to do the same, and the village was transforming into an inferno.

Draga and Fadiko moved to the next house. Fadiko had to kick the door in, and inside they discovered a few weapons and some cured meat.

“Would hate for this to go to waste,” Fadiko said, sweeping up the pieces of meat.

Unlike the previous house Draga and Fadiko had searched, this house had more storage areas built into its structure. Something nagged at the back of Draga’s mind, and he made a point of searching every nook and cranny.

“There’s nothing here,” Fadiko said, clearly bored. “Let’s just burn it.”

“Indulge me a moment,” Draga said as he moved some baskets.

Draga was unable to find anything, save some discarded barley here and there. Still, though, the nagging feeling at the back of Draga’s mind tormented him.

Outside the longhouse, Draga heard Gisilbehrt call to the knights.

“Let’s go,” Fadiko said.

Reluctantly Draga grunted an affirmation and followed Fadiko out of the longhouse, setting areas alight as he went.

As Draga and Fadiko joined the other brother-knights and the auxiliaries, Draga noted that many of the fleeing Yatwingian warriors had been captured. With them were a handful of womenfolk and children, and a few elders of the village, most likely captured when discovered hiding in the surrounding forest. Though surrounded and defeated, Draga sensed a great deal of agitation and uneasiness in their captives.

Gisilbehrt noticed it, too. “Herk, what’s wrong?”

Herk asked the captives a question in the Prussian tongue, and a man about Draga’s age came forward, a worried look on his face, and knelt before Gisilbehrt and Herk. Though Draga could tell the Yatwingian man attempted to remain calm, there was a waver in his voice that betrayed fear.

“He says he cannot find his son,” Herk said after a short exchange with the Yatwingian man. “None of the villagers that hid in the woods have seen him, either.”

Gisilbehrt was about to say something when a long cry came from one of the burning houses.

The last house Draga and Fadiko had searched.

Suddenly, a sinking feeling filled Draga, and it was as if he was transported back to that day.

The fire.

The screams of the mother.

The cries of the child.

Before he knew what he was doing, Draga dashed through the village toward the burning longhouse. Gisilbehrt and Fadiko called to Draga, but he paid them no heed. Draga burst through the door of the longhouse he had searched last. The searing heat of the flames pressed upon Draga. He coughed as he tried to breath, and his eyes filled with water from the smoke.

“Hello!” Draga called. “Where are you?”

The crying of the child, fearful and in pain, filled the burning longhouse.

Draga threw open baskets and turned over bedding. It was becoming harder to breathe as he attempted to search every nook and cranny of what was now a blazing inferno. Draga’s heart raced, and in his mind he barely managed to keep the flood of panic held back.

As Draga’s frustration threatened to overwhelm him, his foot hit something hollow on the dirt floor. Draga had missed it in his first search, but now he saw the outline on the ground. With a triumphant yell, Draga dug at the ground with his bare hands, and was rewarded when his nails struck wood. Draga heaved the hidden cover off the floor and looked down. There, in a shallow hide hole, sat a young boy no older than three years, huddled with his knees to his chest, his eyes wide, his soot covered cheeks streaked with tears.

Draga had no words of comfort, nor did he have time for them. He swept up the Yatwingian boy in his arms, cradling him like Draga used to cradle his own son, and charged out the flame-wreathed door.

Just as Draga stumbled out of the burning longhouse, the roof collapsed inward.

There was a cheer from the Yatwingians. The boy’s father, forgetting the knights and Old Prussian auxiliaries, rushed to Draga, tears in his eyes. Draga handed the boy to the father and, though Draga couldn’t translate the Yatwingian man’s words, he could understand them well enough.

Thank you.

“That was a brave thing you did,” Fadiko said. “Even though you didn’t have to do it.”

“Brave indeed,” Gisilbehrt said, approaching Draga. “An act of mercy in the midst of war. God bless you, Brother Draga.”

It was dark when the Teutonic Knights and their Old Prussian auxiliaries herded their Yatwingian captives toward the boats. Gisilbehrt ordered camp made, a constant guard on their prisoners, and preparation for travel the next morning.

Once fires were lit, those knights and auxiliaries not guarding the Yatwingians huddled around the welcome heat and ate and drank.

“Going back should be nice,” Fadiko said, taking a seat next to Draga on the river’s edge. “We won’t be rowing upstream. Hopefully be back in Koenigsberg before nightfall tomorrow.”

Draga grunted a response.

“Is everything alright, brother?” Fadiko asked.

“Well enough,” said Draga. He wasn’t in the mood to talk at that moment.

“You may be alright physically, but there seems something weighing on your soul,” Fadiko said. “Some demon clinging to your back?”

Draga was silent, and after a while Fadiko shrugged and pulled some of the cured meat he had found in the Yatwingian village from a pouch on his belt.

“Several months ago,” Draga began, “I took my knights to support the Duke of Saxony against Danish interlopers in the Nordalbingian lands. Once we had pushed the Danes out of Saxony, we drove North into Denmark to teach them a lesson.” Draga paused a moment to gather his thoughts before continuing. “We came to a village, no bigger than the one we raided today. There was little fighting. A few deaths on their side. We terrorized the people and drove them from their homes.”

Draga stopped as the memories flooded back to the fore of his mind, and with them came the anger and pain he had attempted to bury for so long.

“Once the villagers had fled we burned their village, but. . .” Draga stopped as he felt something catch in his throat.

“But?” Fadiko asked.

Draga collected himself before speaking again. “One woman ran back, screaming and crying. She couldn’t find her son, and begged us to help her.”

Draga stopped then, and the silence stretched out for several long moments.

“The child had been hiding somewhere in the house. . .his cries of fear and pain haunt me to this day. There was nothing we could do, and the child slowly burned to death.” Draga hung his head. “I have seen battle, killed men, unleashed troops upon unsuspecting villagers, and witnessed all the ravages war brings. But that day something snapped inside me. I returned to my castle, but when I saw my own children I couldn’t look them in the eye. I went to confession for my sins, and yet still I felt. . .unclean.”

“And you haven’t forgiven yourself since,” Fadiko said.

Draga shook his head.

“I am a poor priest, as many a woman will tell you,” Fadiko said. “And my words are biased from a lifetime of war myself. To me, it seems, your soul has suffered a great deal, and God knows you did not mean to let that child burn that day in Denmark. And today God gave you the opportunity for redemption.” Fadiko placed his hand on Draga’s shoulder. “God has forgiven you, Brother. It’s time you forgave yourself.”

Fadiko took his hand off of Draga’s shoulder and motioned to the Yatwingian captives.

Draga looked over and saw the Yatwingian boy he had saved and the father, huddled together in the group of captives. Though their lot was deplorable just then, and they were tired, muddy, and hungry, the Yatwingian father looked at his son as if he was more precious and valuable than a priceless gem or a hoard of gold.

It was in that moment – not plunging into the fires to save the boy, but in the loving embrace of the boy and his father – that Brother Draga found his redemption.

Praise be to God.

*          *          *

It was Spring when Count Draga stepped back into his castle. Following in tow were the Yatwingian man, his name Vaitīns, and his son Budrys, whom Draga had saved that day almost a year ago, and was now four years of age, as well as the young man Draga defeated in combat in the Yatwingian village, name Kazys.

As Draga walked through the hall he laid eyes upon his beautiful wife, Regana, planted in her seat above the court.

“My lady,” Draga said, his voice strong. “Your husband has returned.”

Though Regana attempted to keep a straight face, her lips cracked into a smile.

“Welcome home, my Lord.”

And then Draga felt something impact his legs. He looked down, and there was his son, Roland, shaggy haired and all smiles. Roland may have defied the rules of the court, but at that moment Draga didn’t care. All propriety forgotten, Draga lifted his son in his arms and hugged him tight. Immediately, Draga’s eldest son, Hrodulf, and his daughter, Berhta, rushed to embrace their father.

“I am home,” Draga said.

Holding Roland back, and looking at his children, Draga found he could look them in the eye once more.

“Thank you, God, for my family,” Draga said.

And thank you for my redemption.

Miscellaneous – Thoughts on Buying Local

I want to preface this post with the fact that I fully and wholly support free market capitalism. It has done amazing things for communities and countries around the world. I think the healthy mix of independently employed individuals and small businesses all the way up to giant corporations are important for maintaining healthy competition, advancement of technology, and improvement of living conditions.

Now, some readers will point out to the bad things in American capitalism. I argue that here in the United States we do not, in fact, have free market capitalism. There are limits, from the hundreds of thousands of dollars that must be paid in New York in order to license taxis so that only the biggest of taxi companies can afford to run cars, to the latest fee that any manufacturer of guns or gun parts – even that self-employed guy with an old lathe making a few gun parts here and there – must pay in order to not be raided by the FBI. (Thanks Obama.) I’m not talking about regulations about quality (don’t want human parts in our hotdogs), I’m talking about cost of entry. Our current and previous administrations, conservative and liberal, have made our economy semi-planned.

Though I support free-market capitalism, I also want to support local businesses. In the Ward of the city I live in, there are at minimum three independently owned restaurants. One is Turkish food, and my wife and I raid it like the Varangian Guard on Holiday. I would much rather support these businesses than, say, McDonald’s. (I actually cannot remember the last time I ate McDonald’s.) Even where there are chain stores (Baker’s/Kroger’s here) I would rather shop at the one here in our Ward, that I know hires people from our Ward of the city, as opposed to another grocery store. (That said, Aldi is very difficult to beat, and is just one Ward over.)

This goes back to thoughts on tribe and community – which I’ll cover in another post.

Why I Try To Buy As Local As Possible

Most of the businesses in the Ward of the city I live in hire locals. Sure, there are some that hire people from afar (Omaha, Elkhorn, etc.), but for the most part you talk to workers here and they live in and around Ward 3 (that’s the Ward I live in).

Buying local puts money in the pockets of those workers, whereas going to Wal-Mart up the road, or Hy-Vee, puts money in the pockets of others.

It also puts money in the pockets of those small business owners in our area. They are working to make a living doing what (theoretically) they love. Restaurant, bar, or martial arts dojo, they are living and working in our Ward.

Money in their pockets means keeping generally good people in our community, some of which can actually apply money to improve it.

Supporting these businesses also signals to other small businesses that the area is ripe for investment. Maybe Bob next door wants to open a machining shop, and since he sees other businesses doing well in our area, he sets up shop here. Which means more jobs, and more money in our small community.

I also want to show that I support our community. That said, the Turkish food restaurant doesn’t have to try very hard to woo me. I will fork over cash for their food in a heartbeat. But showing my face and buying from them shows I support them and their endeavor. I don’t need small business Saturday to drive my local small business purchases. I do so weekly.

An Imperfect Recipe

Anyone with an iota of brain power will quickly identify the flaws in this plan. What if you require X Service or Y Material and Ward 3 doesn’t have it? Do I just not buy it?

The answer: I go to the city I live in.

And if the city I live in doesn’t have it?

I go to the nearest communities surrounding.

I’m not a purest when it comes to my attempts to buy as local as possible. It’s not 100% realistic. What about those from my community that, unable to open up shop here, open up shop down the road in another ward or town?

And what about my Tribe? I have an uncle that has businesses in Omaha and in another part of Nebraska. Do I not buy his architectural services or wines (respectively)?

The pure version of my principle is a lot like spandex: great idea, until real people started using it, then things got ugly.

Going A Little Further

Of course I am going to buy my uncle’s wines (they’re delicious and at a great price; look up Superior Estates Winery) and I would use his architectural services should I ever need a building for a small business (someday…).

The idea to buy as local as possible stems from two things.

First is the idea that one can only physically and psychologically actually care about only 150 people – which were what tribes were about back thousands, if not tens of thousands of years ago. While some of this is taken up by my family, closest friends, and fell National Guardsmen/women, it is also taken up by those that live in my community. Those who I live next to, go to church with, see at the bar, see at the gym, etc.

I want to build and develop my immediate community as much as I want to develop the relationships I have with family/friends/etc.

The second part of this is somewhat irrational – somewhat.

What if the world we know turns upside down, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and the U.S. starts looking a lot more like, say, Greece or Bosnia-Herzegovina?

This has nothing to do with who is about to become president, and everything to do with the way America is going. Police are less able to do their jobs in the wakes of riots due to killing criminals (insane, I know), and criminals move in to fill the vacuum. We feel this less in Nebraska, in my opinion, but the forces are still here that attempt to push us in that direction (I’m looking at you, Ernie Chambers).

Should such a thing happen I want to be able to defend hearth and home, as well as the community I live in. I want the neighborhoods, schools, and businesses here to remain in the event that the U.S. falls like so many other empires in history. A strong economy and strong local community can help that.

Conclusion

This post is just one in a string of thoughts I’ve been having, and I admit is disjointed and incomplete. I buy as local as possible to keep the local economy and community as strong as possible, and by supporting those individuals in our community that have small businesses here. It’s grossly imperfect. The businesses of my family and closest friends would override buying from the Ward of the city I live in. But should things go pear-shaped in our country I would hope that the building of this community would help weather the storm.

This doesn’t mean I won’t buy outside my community, of course. There are areas of Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska that I love visiting and staying at. Besides that I love to travel, and Boston, Dallas, Denver, and Sacramento are just a few cities which I will continue to visit and spend my money in. And there are products I have to go outside of where I live to buy, such as the Qalo rings my wife and I wear so we don’t damage our actual wedding rings, or the Apple laptop I write most of my blog posts and stories on.

That said, if my family and closest friends all moved to where I lived, it would be a lot easier… 😉

Superior Estates Winery

A shameless plug for my uncle’s winery. His wines are delicious, and most run about $16.99. They have even beaten many wines from Napa Valley in national contests. Go check them out: http://www.superiorestateswinery.com/